Israel’s far right hits ground running, and ripple effects are already being felt

Israeli forces detain a Palestinian man in Hebron-Al-Khalil (Amer Shallodi - Anadolu Agency)

Oliver Holmes

The Guardian  /  January 7, 2023

Ultranationalist religious rulers sworn in last week have made explicit what was previously obscured: annexation

Glancing up and staring directly into the camera, the suspect who broke into the centuries-old Jerusalem cemetery appears to spot the CCTV equipment recording his hate crime. Seemingly unfazed, he looks down again, focusing on the task at hand – pushing over a stone cross and smashing it to pieces.

The two young males who vandalised more than 30 Christian graves last weekend showed little concern about hiding their identities while carrying out a religiously motivated attack. They did not cover their faces as they systematically destroyed headstones on a bright Sunday afternoon in the heart of the holy city. Such is the confidence with which the suspects, believed to be teenage Israeli extremists arrested on Friday, now operate.

And why not operate with confidence? The new ultranationalist religious rulers of Israel, sworn in just days before, include people who share their view of Jewish supremacy. One cabinet minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, made his name as an ideological firebrand lawyer defending exactly the same sort of far-right Jewish settlers who have conducted similar attacks against Palestinian Christians and Muslims. Now he oversees the very institution that is supposed to prevent such crimes – the police.

There’s a “ripple effect” of a hard-right government coming to power, said the former Palestinian peace negotiator Diana Buttu. “The fact that they desecrated those graves, it’s not coming out of the blue – it’s because they can.”

Israel’s new government is the most far-right in the country’s relatively short history, and it has hit the ground running. In little more than a week, the administration has made moves towards the largest expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank since the occupation began. It has allowed the hard-line minister Ben-Gvir to stage a provocative visit to a sacred mosque compound – an act that has previously led to an intifada. It has announced a plan to gut the judiciary, which, despite already leaning to the hard right, is still seen as a thorn in the side of Israeli politicians who want direct control of Palestinian and Israeli life, with no checks.

All this was made possible because political survivor Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving leader, made deals with politicians once seen as radicals. He needed them to form a coalition government, and in the process, he mainstreamed the far right.

Israel’s politics has not suddenly lurched to ideological extremes. In big picture terms, Ben-Gvir and other settlers in the new government share the same goals as Netanyahu, and even many of Israel’s self-proclaimed centrist and left-wing politicians: ultimate control in perpetuity.

In a tweet in Hebrew, Netanyahu made very clear the ideological pillars of the new administration. “The Jewish people have an exclusive and unquestionable right to all areas of the Land of Israel,” he wrote. “The government will promote and develop settlement in all parts of the Land of Israel,” he added, including the occupied West Bank.

Buttu said Israeli governments of the past had tried to keep Palestinians “invisible” to Israeli voters, even while entrenching the occupation, and diverted attention instead to less emotive issues such as the economy or bus schedules.

“Previous Israeli governments had the same plans as this current government, which is to take as much Palestinian land as possible, blockade the Gaza Strip, build and expand settlements, and kill Palestinians with impunity,” said Buttu.

“The difference is that with this government, their sole political platform is against Palestinians,” she said. “There is no longer a veneer.”

US diplomats in Jerusalem are squirming in their attempts to carry out difficult political contortions, talking about working towards a future Palestinian state while knowing very well that the Israeli government Washington claims to support seeks the opposite. It’s hard not to trip up.

“With this government, there is no pretence,” wrote Hadar Susskind, the president of the non-profit Americans for Peace Now. “De facto annexation is a part of its platform. It is explicitly a chief goal of its members. The occupation is the rot at the core of this putrid government.”

Even the Israeli right wing, victorious after a decades-long political battle to snuff out domestic anti-occupation voices, is starting to fret that it may have overstepped.

David Horovitz, the editor of The Times of Israel newspaper, wrote how Israelis were now worried that Netanyahu had made too many concessions to his far-right and ultra-Orthodox allies.

But, he wrote: “That ship, voters and lovers of Israel, has sailed.”

Oliver Holmes is a Guardian journalist; he was previously Jerusalem correspondent and has reported across the Middle East and Asia